“An Anecdotal Tear Jerker”

“The ocean is broken,” states the title of this article recently published in the Newcastle Herald. After the sailer’s lengthy description of the terrific desolation of the ocean he found during his sail from Melbourne to Osaka, one Twitter commenter dismisses the entire article: “Some important marine issues identified but mostly an anecdotal tear-jerker. What [does, sic] a broken ocean even mean?”

This commenter follows in a long tradition of dismissal of anecdotal evidence in favor of–what, exactly? As pointed out in this same tweet, the article’s author identifies critical issues. These aren’t strictly “marine issues,” either. Marine issues become human issues when they impact our water supply, the availability of seafood; they are human issues because we made these issues.

“Pollution” is an inherently hazy term (pardon the pun). Most climate change words are. They’re either too big or too indefinite–or both–for us to really wrap our minds around. Most of us don’t feel climate change the way we feel weather; that partly explains the absurd abundance of weather/climate change conflation in news reports (headlines in the vein of, “Record setting blizzard! Must not have heard of global warming”).

Even in areas that are full of pollution, it is sometimes difficult to really see this. I’ve spent a lot of time in natural bodies of water, from my early experiences trying to catch minnows in Deep Creek Lake, to family summer vacations at Ocean City, to my college years canoeing and swimming in the St. Mary’s River. Along the way, I’ve lost my inhibitions about creepy crawlies and mud between my toes.

I’ve also never had much of an inhibition about swimming in “wild” waters. I remember always wanting to wade in the stream near my house when I was little, and being told it was too dirty, too polluted–but doing it anyway. Ditto for the ten foot wide strip of rushing water in the street outside our house after a hard rain. In Lyon, I am fortunate enough to live right across the street from one of the two major rivers, the Rhone.


The Rhone, from Pont Winston Churchill. Isn’t this lovely?

My first thought: oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to go swimming here? Evidently, some people do, but I’ve been warned off it–too polluted, not exactly ‘lovely.’ Looking at the water, I wouldn’t be able to see that it’s really that “dirty.” However, it gets difficult to breathe after a few days without rain. Some people routinely wear masks, especially while bicycling. Over time, you start to feel the pollution–but it’s still not visible.


A very pleasant form of contact–go for a row!

As much as we need to have statistical, numeric data about pollution (and other environmental problems), we also need anecdotal data. Without traveling to the ocean between Australia and Japan, I was able to envision the environmental calamity due to this article, “The Ocean is Broken.” Without looking up data which may or may not exist–after all, somebody has to do the data collection, and without a reason to seek out information, people seldom do–I wouldn’t have been alerted to this story about pollution, overfishing, human wastefulness.

We're in Sweden, now.

We’re in Sweden, now.

Contact is important. While visiting a friend in Sweden, her body-building-obsessed son frequently used the word “contact” to describe a certain feeling he was trying to get while lifting weights. This term has stuck with me. He was referring to an intuitive sensation, not one defined by the number of kilos he was lifting or how many repetitions he had done. “Contact” was something that you could only sense from within the action itself; it wasn’t something you could measure objectively (as far as I know). Even if you could measure it objectively, you weren’t.

Contact in environmentalism means going outside and means listening to people who go outside places where you don’t or can’t. Contact means putting ourselves in touch with ecosystems that are often more complex than our measuring systems.

As more and more places on earth are influenced by human habitation and consumption, the wilder and more remote places may start to show “signs of wear” in more dramatic ways than the places we routinely clean up and keep livable. (The ocean, for example, is pretty “wild and remote” for most of us.)

For me, water would be merely something that comes out of a tap–often at an alarming speed–except for my experiences mucking about in puddles or in my big red canoe. Most of my experiences of natural bodies of water have been in the context of vacations and recreation, so the connection between water and its importance in our survival (and, obviously, that of many many many other species) is not always the most immediate.

“We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.”

What statistics and even impassioned policy reports cannot convey are the subjective perceptions of the world that prompt emotional connection to real issues. While public policy decisions and other issues are best decided with a prudent balance of research and anecdotal observation, dramatic accounts like these can serve as useful flags of real issues. If you can truly bring someone to tears through your writing, that’s powerful. Of course I’m biased. But interest, sympathy, and impassioned rage all make for very powerful motivators as well.

  1. mar@rrginc.com said:

    I keep meaning to ask you – did you come up with the title for your blog from Wendell Berry?  Martin Reisinger

    • Emma said:

      No – if anything, from David Gessner (

        My Green Manifesto


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